This is a collection of biographical sketches showing people whose wise voices from the past can help to guide us today. All of the women and men, brief glimpses of whose lives and ideas are portrayed here, gave a high place to compassion. None of them was a slave to greed. We need their voices today!
[Note from TMS editor: It will be posted one biographical sketch per week]
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophes.”
“I don’t know what will be used in the next world war, but the 4th will be fought with stones.”
— Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Besides being one of the greatest physicists of all time, Albert Einstein was a lifelong pacifist, and his thoughts on peace can speak eloquently to us today. We need his wisdom today, when the search for peace has become vital to our survival as a species.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. He was the son of middle-class, irreligious Jewish parents, who sent him to a Catholic school. Einstein was slow in learning to speak, and at first his parents feared that he might be retarded; but by the time he was eight, his grandfather could say in a letter: “Dear Albert has been back in school for a week. I just love that boy, because you cannot imagine how good and intelligent he has become.”
Remembering his boyhood, Einstein himself later wrote: “When I was 12, a little book dealing with Euclidian plane geometry came into my hands at the beginning of the school year. Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the altitudes of a triangle in one point, which, though by no means self-evident, could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question. The lucidity and certainty made an indescribable impression on me.”
When Albert Einstein was in his teens, the factory owned by his father and uncle began to encounter hard times. The two Einstein families moved to Italy, leaving Albert alone and miserable in Munich, where he was supposed to finish his course at the gymnasium. Einstein’s classmates had given him the nickname “Beidermeier”, which means something like “Honest John”; and his tactlessness in criticizing authority soon got him into trouble. In Einstein’s words, what happened next was the following: “When I was in the seventh grade at the Lutpold Gymnasium, I was summoned by my home-room teacher, who expressed the wish that I leave the school. To my remark that I had done nothing wrong, he replied only, ‘Your mere presence spoils the respect of the class for me’.”
Einstein left gymnasium without graduating, and followed his parents to Italy, where he spent a joyous and carefree year. He also decided to change his citizenship. “The over-emphasized military mentality of the German State was alien to me, even as a boy”, Einstein wrote later. “When my father moved to Italy, he took steps, at my request, to have me released from German citizenship, because I wanted to be a Swiss citizen.”
Special and general relativity theory
The financial circumstances of the Einstein family were now precarious, and it was clear that Albert would have to think seriously about a practical career. In 1896, he entered the famous Zürich Polytechnic Institute with the intention of becoming a teacher of mathematics and physics. However,
his undisciplined and nonconformist attitudes again got him into trouble. His mathematics professor, Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909), considered Einstein to be a “lazy dog”; and his physics professor, Heinrich Weber, who originally had gone out of his way to help Einstein, said to him in anger and exasperation: “You’re a clever fellow, but you have one fault: You won’t let anyone tell you a thing! You won’t let anyone tell you a thing!”
Einstein missed most of his classes, and read only the subjects which interested him. He was interested most of all in Maxwell’s theory of electro-magnetism, a subject which was too “modern” for Weber. There were two major examinations at the Zürich Polytechnic Institute, and Einstein would certainly have failed them had it not been for the help of his loyal friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossman.
Grossman was an excellent and conscientious student, who attended every class and took meticulous notes. With the help of these notes, Einstein managed to pass his examinations; but because he had alienated Weber and the other professors who could have helped him, he found himself completely unable to get a job. In a letter to Professor F. Ostwald on behalf of his son, Einstein’s father wrote: “My son is profoundly unhappy because of his present joblessness; and every day the idea becomes more firmly implanted in his mind that he is a failure, and will not be able to find the way back again.”
From this painful situation, Einstein was rescued (again!) by his friend Marcel Grossman, whose influential father obtained for Einstein a position at the Swiss Patent Office: Technical Expert (Third Class). Anchored at last in a safe, though humble, position, Einstein married one of his classmates. He learned to do his work at the Patent Office very efficiently; and he used the remainder of his time on his own calculations, hiding them guiltily in a drawer when footsteps approached.
In 1905, this Technical Expert (Third Class) astonished the world of science with five papers, written within a few weeks of each other, and published in the Annalen der Physik. Of these five papers, three were classics: One of these was the paper in which Einstein applied Planck’s quantum hypothesis to the photoelectric effect. The second paper discussed “Brownian motion”, the zig-zag motion of small particles suspended in a liquid and hit randomly by the molecules of the liquid. This paper supplied a direct proof of the validity of atomic ideas and of Boltzmann’s kinetic theory. The third paper was destined to establish Einstein’s reputation as one of the greatest physicists of all time. It was entitled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, and in this paper, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity. Essentially, this theory maintained that all of the fundamental laws of nature exhibit a symmetry with respect to rotations in a 4-dimensional space-time continuum.
Gradually, the importance of Einstein’s work began to be realized, and he was much sought after. He was first made Assistant Professor at the University of Zürich, then full Professor in Prague, then Professor at the Zürich Polytechnic Institute; and finally, in 1913, Planck and Nernst persuaded Einstein to become Director of Scientific Research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He was at this post when the First World War broke out.
While many other German intellectuals produced manifestos justifying Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Einstein dared to write and sign an anti-war manifesto. Einstein’s manifesto appealed for cooperation and understanding among the scholars of Europe for the sake of the future; and it proposed the eventual establishment of a League of Europeans. During the war, Einstein remained in Berlin, doing whatever he could for the cause of peace, burying himself unhappily in his work, and trying to forget the agony of Europe, whose civilization was dying in a rain of shells, machine-gun bullets, and poison gas.
The work into which Einstein threw himself during this period was an extension of his theory of relativity. He already had modified Newton’s equations of motion so that they exhibited the space-time symmetry required by his Principle of Special Relativity. However, Newton’s law of gravitation remained a problem.
Obviously it had to be modified, since it disagreed with his Special Theory of Relativity; but how should it be changed? What principles could Einstein use in his search for a more correct law of gravitation? Certainly whatever new law he found would have to give results very close to Newton’s law, since Newton’s theory could predict the motions of the planets with almost perfect accuracy. This was the deep problem with which he struggled.
In 1907, Einstein had found one of the principles which was to guide him, the Principle of Equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. After turning Newton’s theory over and over in his mind, Einstein realized that Newton had used mass in two distinct ways: His laws of motion stated that the force acting on a body is equal to the mass of the body multiplied by its acceleration; but according to Newton, the gravitational force on a body is also proportional to its mass. In Newton’s theory, gravitational mass, by a coincidence, is equal to inertial mass; and this holds for all bodies. Einstein wondered – can the equality between the two kinds of mass be a coincidence? Why not make a theory in which they necessarily have to be the same?
He then imagined an experimenter inside a box, unable to see anything outside it. If the box is on the surface of the earth, the person inside it will feel the pull of the earth’s gravitational field. If the experimenter drops an object, it will fall to the floor with an acceleration of 32 feet per second per second. Now suppose that the box is taken out into empty space, far away from strong gravitational fields, and accelerated by exactly 32 feet per second per second. Will the enclosed experimenter be able to tell the difference between these two situations? Certainly no difference can be detected by dropping an object, since in the accelerated box, the object will fall to the floor in exactly the same way as before.
With this “thought experiment” in mind, Einstein formulated a general Principle of Equivalence: He asserted that no experiment whatever can tell an observer enclosed in a small box whether the box is being accelerated, or whether it is in a gravitational field. According to this principle, gravitation and acceleration are locally equivalent, or, to say the same thing in different words, gravitational mass and inertial mass are equivalent.
Einstein soon realized that his Principle of Equivalence implied that a ray of light must be bent by a gravitational field. This conclusion followed because, to an observer in an accelerated frame, a light beam which would appear straight to a stationary observer, must necessarily appear very slightly curved. If the Principle of Equivalence held, then the same slight bending of the light ray would be observed by an experimenter in a stationary frame in a gravitational field.
Another consequence of the Principle of Equivalence was that a light wave propagating upwards in a gravitational field should be very slightly shifted to the red. This followed because in an accelerated frame, the wave crests would be slightly farther apart than they normally would be, and the same must then be true for a stationary frame in a gravitational field. It seemed to Einstein that it ought to be possible to test experimentally both the gravitational bending of a light ray and the gravitational red shift.
This seemed promising; but how was Einstein to proceed from the Principle of Equivalence to a formulation of the law of gravitation? Perhaps the theory ought to be modeled after Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, which was a field theory, rather than an “action at a distance” theory. Part of the trouble with Newton’s law of gravitation was that it allowed a signal to be propagated instantaneously, contrary to the Principle of Special Relativity. A field theory of gravitation might cure this defect, but how was Einstein to find such a theory? There seemed to be no way.
From these troubles Albert Einstein was rescued (a third time!) by his staunch friend Marcel Grossman. By this time, Grossman had become a professor of mathematics in Zürich, after having written a doctoral dissertation on tensor analysis and non-Euclidian geometry, the very things that Einstein needed. The year was then 1912, and Einstein had just returned to Zürich as Professor of Physics at the Polytechnic Institute. For two years, Einstein and Grossman worked together; and by the time Einstein left for Berlin in 1914, the way was clear. With Grossman’s help, Einstein saw that the gravitational field could be expressed as a curvature of the 4-dimensional space-time continuum.
In 1919, a British expedition, headed by Sir Arthur Eddington, sailed to a small island off the coast of West Africa. Their purpose was to test Einstein’s prediction of the bending of light in a gravitational field by observing stars close to the sun during a total eclipse. The observed bending agreed exactly with Einstein’s predictions; and as a result he became world-famous. The general public was fascinated by relativity, in spite of the abstruseness of the theory (or perhaps because of it). Einstein, the absent-minded professor, with long, uncombed hair, became a symbol of science. The world was tired of war, and wanted something else to think about.
Einstein met President Harding, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin; and he was invited to lunch by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although adulated elsewhere, he was soon attacked in Germany. Many Germans, looking for an excuse for the defeat of their nation, blamed it on the pacifists and Jews; and Einstein was both these things.
Einstein’s letter to Freud: Why war?
Because of his fame, Einstein was asked to make several speeches at the Reichstag. and in all these speeches he condemned violence and nationalism, urging that these be replaced by and international cooperation and law under an effective international authority. He also wrote many letters and articles pleading for peace and for the renunciation of militarism and violence.
Einstein believed that the production of armaments is damaging, not only economically, but also spiritually. In 1930 he signed a manifesto for world disarmament sponsored by the Womans International League for Peace and Freedom. In December of the same year, he made his famous statement in New York that if two percent of those called for military service were to refuse to fight, governments would become powerless, since they could not imprison that many people. He also argued strongly against compulsory military service and urged that conscientious objectors should be protected by the international community. He argued that peace, freedom of individuals, and security of societies could only be achieved through disarmament, the alternative being “slavery of the individual and annihilation of civilization”.
In letters, and articles, Einstein wrote that the welfare of humanity as a whole must take precedence over the goals of individual nations, and that we cannot wait until leaders give up their preparations for war. Civil society, and especially public figures, must take the lead. He asked how decent and self-respecting people can wage war, knowing how many innocent people will be killed.
In 1931, the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited Albert Einstein to enter correspondence with a prominent person of his own choosing on a subject of importance to society. The Institute planned to publish a collection of such dialogues. Einstein accepted at once, and decided to write to Sigmund Freud to ask his opinion about how humanity could free itself from the curse of war. A translation from German of part of the long letter that he wrote to Freud is as follows:
“Dear Professor Freud, The proposal of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation at Paris that I should invite a person to be chosen by myself to a frank exchange of views on any problem that I might select affords me a very welcome opportunity of conferring with you upon a question which, as things are now, seems the most important and insistent of all problems civilization has to face. This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life or death to civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.
“I believe, moreover, that those whose duty it is to tackle the problem professionally and practically are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it, and have now a very lively desire to learn the views of men who, absorbed in the pursuit of science, can see world-problems in the perspective distance lends. As for me, the normal objective of my thoughts affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling. Thus in the enquiry now proposed, I can do little more than seek to clarify the question at issue and, clearing the ground of the more obvious solutions, enable you to bring the light of your far-reaching knowledge of man’s instinctive life upon the problem.
“As one immune from nationalist bias, I personally see a simple way of dealing with the superficial (i.e. administrative) aspect of the problem: the setting up, by international consent, of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations… But here, at the outset, I come up against a difficulty; a tribunal is a human institution which, in proportion as the power at its disposal is… prone to suffer these to be deflected by extrajudicial pressure…”
Freud replied with a long and thoughtful letter in which he said that a tendency towards conflict is an intrinsic part of human emotional nature, but that emotions can be overridden by rationality, and that rational behavior is the only hope for humankind. The full exchange between Einstein and Freud can be found on HERE.
Albert Einstein’s famous relativistic formula, relating energy to mass, soon yielded an understanding of the enormous amounts of energy released in radioactive decay. Marie and Pierre Curie had noticed that radium maintains itself at a temperature higher than its surroundings. Their measurements and calculations showed that a gram of radium produces roughly 100 gram-calories of heat per hour.
This did not seem like much energy until Rutherford found that radium has a half-life of about 1,000 years. In other words, after a thousand years, a gram of radium will still be producing heat, its radioactivity only reduced to one-half its original value. During a thousand years, a gram of radium produces about a million kilocalories, an enormous amount of energy in relation to the tiny size of its source! Where did this huge amount of energy come from? Conservation of energy was one of the most basic principles of physics. Would it have to be abandoned?
The source of the almost-unbelievable amounts of energy released in radioactive decay could be understood through Einstein’s formula equating the energy of a system to its mass multiplied by the square of the velocity of light, and through accurate measurements of atomic weights. Einstein’s formula asserted that mass and energy are equivalent. It was realized that in radioactive decay, neither mass nor energy is conserved, but only a quantity more general than both, of which mass and energy are particular forms. Scientists in several parts of the world realized that Einstein’s discovery of the relationship between mass and energy, together with the discovery of fission of the heavy element uranium meant that it might be possible to construct a uranium-fission bomb of immense power.
Meanwhile night was falling on Europe. In 1929, an economic depression had begun in the United States and had spread to Europe. Without the influx of American capital, the postwar reconstruction of the German economy collapsed. The German middle class, which had been dealt a severe blow by the great inflation of 1923, now received a second heavy blow. The desperation produced by economic chaos drove German voters into the hands of political extremists.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor and leader of a coalition cabinet by President Hindenburg. Although Hitler was appointed legally to this post, he quickly consolidated his power by unconstitutional means: On May 2, Hitler’s police seized the headquarters of all trade unions,
and arrested labor leaders. The Communist and Socialist parties were also banned, their assets seized and their leaders arrested. Other political parties were also smashed. Acts were passed eliminating Jews from public service; and innocent Jewish citizens were boycotted, beaten and arrested. On March 11, 1938, Nazi troops entered Austria.
On March 16, 1939, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (who by then was a refugee in America) went to Washington to inform the Office of Naval Operations that it might be possible to construct an atomic bomb; and on the same day, German troops poured into Czechoslovakia.
A few days later, a meeting of six German atomic physicists was held in Berlin to discuss the applications of uranium fission. Otto Hahn, the discoverer of fission, was not present, since it was known that he was opposed to the Nazi regime. He was even said to have exclaimed: “I only hope that you physicists will never construct a uranium bomb! If Hitler ever gets a weapon like that, I’ll commit suicide.”
The meeting of German atomic physicists was supposed to be secret; but one of the participants reported what had been said to Dr. S. Flügge, who wrote an article about uranium fission and about the possibility of a chain reaction. Flügge’s article appeared in the July issue of Naturwissenschaften, and a popular version of it was printed in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. These articles greatly increased the alarm of American atomic scientists, who reasoned that if the Nazis permitted so much to be printed, they must be far advanced on the road to building an atomic bomb.
In the summer of 1939, while Hitler was preparing to invade Poland, alarming news reached the physicists in the United States: A second meeting of German atomic scientists had been held in Berlin, this time under the auspices of the Research Division of the German Army Weapons Department. Furthermore, Germany had stopped the sale of uranium from mines in Czechoslovakia.
The world’s most abundant supply of uranium, however, was not in Czechoslovakia, but in Belgian Congo. Leo Szilard, a refugee Hungarian physicist who had worked with Fermi to measure the number of neutrons produced in uranium fission, was deeply worried that the Nazis were about to construct atomic bombs; and it occurred to him that uranium from Belgian Congo should not be allowed to fall into their hands.
Szilard knew that his former teacher, Albert Einstein, was a personal friend of Elizabeth, the Belgian Queen Mother. Einstein had met Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium at the Solvay Conferences, and mutual love of music had cemented a friendship between them. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein had moved to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton; and Szilard decided to visit him there. Szilard reasoned that because of Einstein’s great prestige, and because of his long-standing friendship with the Belgian Royal Family, he would be the proper person to warn the Belgians not to let their uranium fall into the hands of the Nazis. Einstein agreed to write to the Belgian king and queen.
On August 2, 1939, Szilard again visited Einstein, accompanied by Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, who (like Szilard) were refugee Hungarian physicists. By this time, Szilard’s plans had grown more ambitious; and he carried with him the draft of another letter, this time to the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Einstein made a few corrections, and then signed the fateful letter, which reads (in part) as follows:
“Some recent work of E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into an important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe, therefore, that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following.
“It is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded a port, might very well destroy the whole port, together with some of the surrounding territory.”
The letter also called Roosevelt’s attention to the fact that Germany had already stopped the export of uranium from the Czech mines under German control. After making a few corrections, Einstein signed it. On October 11, 1939, three weeks after the defeat of Poland, Roosevelt’s economic adviser, Alexander Sachs, personally delivered the letter to the President. After discussing it with Sachs, the President commented,“This calls for action.” Later, when atomic bombs were dropped on civilian populations in an already virtually-defeated Japan, Einstein bitterly regretted having signed Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt. He said repeatedly that signing the letter was the greatest mistake of his life, and his remorse was extreme.
Throughout the remainder of his life, in addition to his scientific work, Einstein worked tirelessly for peace, international understanding and nuclear disarmament. His last public act, only a few days before his death in 1955, was to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, warning humankind of the catastrophic consequences that would follow from a war with nuclear weapons.
Here are a few more things that Einstein said about peace:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.”
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results.”
“Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.”
“Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent war.”
“You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”
“Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.”
“Taken as a whole, I would believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all political men of our time.”
“Without ethical culture, there is no salvation for humanity.”
“War seems to me to be a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business. And yet so high, in spite of everything, is my opinion of the human race that I believe this bogey would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the nations not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the Press.”